Charcoal: Why it’s going in food, and what you need to know

Activated charcoal is all the rage in foodie circles – but what’s the fuss about?

Press Association
Last updated: 15 May 2018 - 3.38pm

Charring your toast to a cinder, forgetting about your roast chicken until it’s gone black and crispy in the oven, or fishing a singed sausage from among the barbecue ashes, are all considered culinary no-nos. So why has charcoal itself become such a huge food trend?

You can now get charcoal ice cream, smoothies and lemonade; water bottles that come with ‘purifying’ shards of it floating in them, while vitamin-type charcoal detox capsules abound in health-food shops as well as activated charcoal drinks.

And don’t get us started on the unappetizing-looking charcoal burger buns doing the rounds on Instagram – not to mention charcoal toothpaste, teeth whitening kits, face masks and soaps.

It’s not just any old charcoal though, it’s ‘activated charcoal’

The charcoal being used in treatments and foods – even pizza – and touted for its health-giving, detoxifying benefits, is not however, the kind you used in art class at school. It’s activated charcoal.

“Activated charcoal is simply charcoal that has been heated or treated to expand its surface area,” explains nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed. “It’s been used for many years as a treatment for overdoses and poisonings, as the charcoal is able to bind to substances in the stomach and prevent their absorption.”

The benefits are probably not as groundbreaking as you may have been led to believe though

“There are only certain substances that activated charcoal [AC] will bind to and therefore its use as a ‘detox substance’ is unwarranted,” explains Stirling-Reed.

“There is research that suggests that, alongside its benefit from a medical sense in overdoses, it may also contribute to reducing excessive flatulence after eating,” she concedes, but adds: “There are many outlandish claims made about activated charcoal and its use as a supplement – however, it’s important to remember that most of these claims do not have any evidence behind them.

“For example, many recommend using activated charcoal to ‘detox’ the body or help with hangovers,” she explains. “There is no evidence that AC can help with either of these and, importantly, our bodies do a really good job of eliminating toxins on their own. Unless you have a medical problem, they do not need the help of activated charcoal.”

And so far, it’s largely the supposed positives of activated charcoal being talked about, rather than the negatives

“Having too much may cause stomach upsets,” says Stirling-Reed, “but other than that, we know little about the concerns of taking activated charcoal.”

There is a suggestion that taking AC can impact on other medication you might be taking. Earlier this month, gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond told Women’s Health: “Activated charcoal is given to people who take too much medication because charcoal is so absorbent and can counteract an overdose.

“But if you’re drinking it and you also are on any meds, even birth control pills, the charcoal is likely to absorb the drugs. So you risk having them become ineffective.”

So the life-enhancing properties of charcoal have been somewhat blown out of proportion

“Yes, to some extent. Charcoal is possibly another money-making fad. You’re much better getting advice from a registered nutritionist, dietitian or your GP on improving your health,” says Stirling-Reed. “I would recommend only taking activated charcoal if your GP/doctor recommends you do so.”

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